Companies Hail Black History Month But The Participation Of Alcohol And Tobacco Firms Draws Some Criticism.

Posted: February 01, 1991

Today begins Black History Month: that time of year when special acknowledgment is given to great black Americans - artists, civil rights leaders, athletes, inventors and jurists who helped shape our society.

And look who's pitching in: some of the nation's biggest consumer-products companies. Their promotions are upbeat and tasteful; no tacky burger promotions, but films, paintings, posters, calendars and radio programs about the great achievements of American blacks, commissioned, produced and distributed by corporate America.

"Discover the thrill of history so electrifying it can't be contained in any book," reads a magazine advertisement by New York-area McDonald's restaurants, promoting the company's audiocassette tape on black Americans.

"Whether you're eight or eighty, the exhilarating adventures of the Underground Railroad, the Reconstruction, and the Tuskegee Airmen will bring you to your feet. You'll find yourself dancing and singing, swept along by the rhythms of history itself. . . . The African-American Heritage Series Commemorative Tape is history like you've never heard it. . . ."

In the New York area, the tape is "available free with any purchase after 4 p.m., at participating McDonald's while supplies last," reads the advertisement. In the Philadelphia area, the tapes will not be available at stores but will be distributed by participating store owners to selected schools and community organizations.

The 12 segments on each tape, narrated by prominent black Americans, tell of the accomplishments of such black pioneers as writer Langston Hughes, singer Bessie Smith and baseball great Jackie Robinson.

McDonald's, which also is giving $1,000 scholarships to promising black high school students, is not alone in its celebration of black Americans' achievements. Consider:

* Philip Morris Cos., maker of cigarettes, beer and food products, has produced a series of six 29-minute radio programs that "examine the contributions of African-Americans" to the military, literature, arts, communications, business, and science. They will be broadcast on about 500 radio stations nationwide during Black History Month.

* PepsiCo Inc., maker of Pepsi-Cola, is this month sending 30,000 copies of Glory, the acclaimed 1989 film about black Union soldiers in the Civil War, to junior and senior high schools, colleges and community organizations. The copies sent to schools include a poster and a lesson plan "to make certain the students get as much understanding of the motion picture as possible and why Pepsi-Cola is doing it," said a company publicist.

* Toyota of America Inc. is distributing to several prominent black organizations 10,000 copies of a two-hour version of the celebrated public- television series Eyes on the Prize, about the history of the civil rights movement.

* Miller Brewing, a subsidiary of Philip Morris, has commissioned 12 portraits of prominent black filmmakers and will display its "Gallery of Greats" in various cities throughout the year. Those paintings also are being featured in posters, calendars and a brochure that feature brief biographical sketches of such well-known filmmakers as Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee, as well as lesser-known documentary filmmakers. Proceeds from the sale of Miller T-shirts and sweat shirts depicting those artists will be used to finance college scholarships, according to a Miller spokeswoman.

Dozens of other consumer-product firms have likewise begun promoting Black History Month, which began as Black History Week in 1915. Most of those promotions have sprung up in the last four or five years.

"From our point of view, it's a positive development," said Jim Williams, director of public relations for the NAACP.

"We see it first of all as an acknowledgment of the importance of black history. We also see it as an expression of sensitivity on the part of those industries and firms that deem it worthy of their support," Williams said. ''It helps to spread the message of black history in the most positive manner."

But the Rev. Jesse Brown, pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church at 30th and Diamond Streets, is angered by the Black History Month promotions of Philip Morris, its subsidiary Miller, and other tobacco and alcohol firms.

"I'm in favor of corporate sponsorship of Black History Month, as long as it's not tobacco and alcohol," said Mr. Brown, who in 1989 blocked the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company's plans to market a new cigarette, Uptown, specifically to blacks.

"Tobacco and alcohol have been deadly to poor people and in no way enhance the community," Brown said during an interview this week. "The tobacco and liquor industries both have been specifically targeting African American communities for increasing their sales, but they're selling death."

"As long as Philip Morris puts their logo on (Black History Month promotions), it's their way of saying, 'We're associating the goodness of our products with the goodness of this project.' But I think consumers can read between the lines, that these promotions are done by tobacco and liquor industries to increase sales in these communities."

Reese Stone, director of corporate communications for Philip Morris, said yesterday that he would not comment on Mr. Brown's remarks. "I'm sorry the minister feels that way," said Stone. "I would only say the program is too important to get into a debate over whether we should be sponsoring these events."

Beverly Jurkowski, a spokeswoman for Miller Brewing, said her company "is aware of the criticism" that beer and tobacco firms market to certain ethnic minorities, "but we also feel that black, green, or purple, consumption (of these products) is an individual choice."

Williams scoffed at any suggestion that large companies were unfairly exploiting Black History Month.

"Toyota is making available 10,000 copies of Eyes on the Prize. Now what's wrong with that?" asked Williams, who said Toyota was giving 3,000 of those videotapes to the NAACP to distribute. "I can't think of anything that's been done (for Black History Month) that has not been in good taste. All have approached it with dignity."

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